A Big Apple With a Bit More Bite?

This year’s New York Film Festival was a big improvement of last year’s lacklustre edition. Stalwart oldies (Godard, Bergman) were jazzed up by honest-to-goodness discoveries and some local boys made good.

The whiff of complacency that circled the Center’s Walter Reader theater last year had completely vanished this time around. Such is New York’s propensity for hype that it’s easy to believe your own propaganda. Galas, parties and photo ops with big names seemed to rule the festival lately, but there was no sense of curatorial buzz. Unlike other festivals, there is no catalogue, no sales agents trawling the screenings and hardly any career breakthroughs. With the programme consisting of some 25 new feaures, the festival is more like a shop window for the season’s premieres, sprinkled with small gems, avant-garde and repertory titles. But even if New York is no Toronto, this year’s shop window was crammed full of various layers of eye-candy.

The selection committee had managed to find some small, worthwhile films that had failed to get much attention elsewhere, such as the Israeli Or by Keren Yedeya. On the home front, there were several very strong films by New York filmmakers such as Todd Solondz and debutant Jonathan Caouette. There was room for mid-career filmmakers in full flight, such as Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl), the Korean Hong Sang-soo (Woman is the Future of Man) and China’s Jia Zhangke (The World). Even though the festival is tapping into the rich Asian and Latin American veins, it is not forgetting Africa (Ousmane Sembene) and the Middle East (Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields and Yousry Nasrallah’s Palestinian epic The Gate of the Sun).

For cinema greats such as Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique) and Ingmar Bergman (Saraband) there is always room in Lincoln Center. Local premieres such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education and Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake ensure the festival star power on the red carpet. Not driven by industry considerations, but truly inspired, were the special events dedicated to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, propaganda films for the Marshall Plan (’48-’53) and two documentaries celebrating Miles Davis and boxer Jack Johnson.

Ancient Camcorders

Though the festival’s programmers are looking east (Thailand) and south (Argentina) where most of today’s global talent seems to be – there is nothing like the triumph of homegrown talent. It’s been a while since new talent emerged from the Big Apple, but with Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette has made an extremely confident debut. Well, he’s had to be confident, since the whole film is a self-portrait made out of photos, phone calls, wobbly video footage and a kick-ass soundtrack that combines the Chocolate Watch Band and the Cocteau Twins. After a deluge of self-centered documentaries, the centre stage has been taken over by more political work – but since the film was screened successfully at Sundance and Cannes, there must be something to it.

First of all, Caouette is an artist – which not many young US filmmakers, let alone documentary makers, can claim. Right away, his colorfully manipulated images are matched by mesmerizing music. No wonder, since he grew up in gay clubs discovering underground films. What’s truly astonishing about this self-portrait of a very dysfunctional family is the fact that Caouette started capturing his own tragedy when he was around twelve, using tape recorders and ancient camrecorders. It’s not until he has miraculously achieved adulthood – while taking in his brain-damaged mom – that he starts to piece it together on his boyfriend’s iMac.

If you’re worried the film might prey on your voyeurism, you’ll be hooked before you can say ‘skepticism’. To me, the film was less an exhibitionist assault than an eye-opening meditation on the concept of the Southern Belle. Caouette’s Texan mom was teenage beauty queen – taught to be pretty and shut up. She almost didn’t live to tell the tale.

Gus van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) stepped in as producers and secured the funding needed for post-production and the music rights. And I’m glad that they did, because Tarnation is a reminder that film should celebrate visual daring instead of neatly tying up storylines and subplots. After Cannes the film sold well internationally (Tarnation will be released in the UK by Optimum early next year) and Caouette must feel vindicated for bringing both his pain and his vision to the world. Let’s keep our fingers crossed he can move on from this gut wrenching personal experience to other work, which can never be as personal as this.

Another Newyorker, Lodge Kerrigan, releases his third feature. His previous forays into the independent film world, Clean, Shaven (1994) and Claire Dolan (1998) received rave reviews. His latest, Keane, suffers from a lack of plot and strong characters – resulting in ninety minutes of unimpressive visuals. The film opens with a frantic father (a poor performance by Damian Lewis) searching for his daughter in New York’s Port Authority bus terminal.

Although Kerrigan offers a promising beginning, the truh as to what truly happened to his daughter never materialises. For an hour we follow William Keane around the streets as he breaks law after law without getting arrested. He’s a madman on the loose, but when he finally comes in contact with a woman (Amy Ryan) and her little girl (Abigail Breslin) he suddenly takes control of his behavior without having taking any medication.

It’s difficult to connect to someone if they are just talking about their pain, let alone to themselves. It is also highly important to devote a lot of research and character study when portraying people of unsound mental states. Perhaps looking back at Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man (1988), Robert De Niro’s in Awakenings (1990), Russell Crowe’s in A Beautiful Mind (2001) would offer more insight into what it means to be in a different mental state from start to finish.

Suburban Geek

Todd Solondz also brought us his blackest film to date. Palindromes is a fable about abortion whose noir humour would make any dye-in-the-wool Balkan filmmaker blush. After the diappointing Storytelling, Solondz is back with a vengeance.

The story concerns a supposedly liberal mum (a brilliant Ellen Barkin) who makes her daughter have an abortion, despite the girl’s ardent wish to keep the baby. The operation doesn’t work and she’s left infertile, only nobody bothers to tell her. The girl, Aviva, starts on a road trip, offering herself to a pedophile trucker whom she is sure will impregnate her a.s.a.p. A kind of Dorothy in reverse, she ends up with a scary Christian family in Kansas. The Sunshines take in adopted kids with all kinds of deficiencies. They fight abortion, literally, but they also provide more love and care than Aviva ever had at her stifling East Coast home.

Solondz wants to make sure we know it’s a fable, so Aviva is played by three actresses, to create a bit more distance. It works really well, thanks to their natural acting. Only the most experienced one, Jennifer Jason Leigh, feels too full of tricks to be an Aviva. In fact, when casting all of the handicapped, musical Sunshine kids, Solondz emphasised to parents that he wasn’t being exploitative. He just wanted them to have fun together.

Palindromes was nominated for a Gold Lion in Venice, yet didn’t get a US distributor until the morning of the New York press screening. It’s a brave company that buys this film (Wellspring, see also Tarnation) because as the ensuing press conference proved – Americans have a hard time looking beyond the moral issues.

In a weird way, it’s a declaration of love to the fly-over states by a Jersey suburban geek with bile to spare. Solondz realizes that rather than dismissing the American heartland as ignorant Bush country, it’s healthier to examine it closely. He said he’s afraid it’s turned into a pro-life film, but it’s really patriotism à la Solondz. Too bad the Upper West Side liberals he makes fun of in his film – and there were hundreds of them during the press conference – didn’t see it that way. One of them chided my neighbour for chuckling too loud during the film. I’m pretty sure he was member of the Serbian press corps.

Autumn in New York has been a bountiful Indian summer. Pumpkins paraded on Halloween, the brightly coloured leaves are falling and another film season is in full swing. Too bad the White House isn’t looking quite as rosy.